How to Go Viral Every Time

Originally appeared on the blog.

Everyone wants their content to go viral. It’s the holy grail of marketing. It can turn companies and product into the talk of the town, even if they sell toiletries. The ROI on content with more than a million views is almost unmeasurable. So how do you make sure your content will go viral?

The secret is simple. Be incredibly lucky.

Luck is the third piece of the virality triumvirate and obviously the hardest to bank on. In fact, you cannot achieve true virality without it. With great content and powerful tactics you can certainly get millions of views on a consistent basis, but if lady luck doesn’t give her blessing, you will end up with a good – but not great – ROI.

So let’s take a look at these three puzzle pieces and see how they fit together so you know where to put your efforts.

There are different levels of viral success, from a few thousand views to Gangnam Style. It’s important to understand what you can reasonably achieve with the right amount of effort and to set your expectations accordingly. The chart below outlines what you need in order to achieve consistent results. Consistency is important because virality is, by nature, all about the outliers — and you can’t set expectations on outliers.


To get any type of fire going on a consistent basis, you need the right tools and expertise. The most important is your platform. You just put up some content that you think will do well, how many eyeballs can you access to jump start the viral loop? This can be YouTube subscribers, Twitter followers, blog and newsletter subscribers, and main website traffic.

CollegeHumor has a huge YouTube platform of almost 4 million subscribers. This alone is enough to get the first 100,000 views on their videos inside of a day. This huge subscriber count is an outlier and would push the slopes of the above chart to the right, but it still does not guarantee virality. Their content is consistently funny and well produced and they have vaulted 16 videos above 10 million views. However, their total uploads number 1,900, making 10 million views a 100-to-one shot. You can’t escape the luck factor.

If you are looking to create dozens of videos with over a million views, then at the very minimum, you need a platform of this magnitude.

What if you have no platform? No YouTube subscribers, no audience, no tribe? Then you are like most people and everyone starting out. There is no roadmap of what to do here other than hustle and be smart. Social voting sites like Reddit and HackerNews will allow great content to flourish… some of the time. Sometimes, the very best content will get lost in the noise and never be heard from again, or it will resurface a week or a month later as the biggest thing ever. Trying to make sense of this will drive you mad.

The lucky outliers will destroy your expectations

Remember Rebecca Black? Her Friday video has topped anything by College Humor and her 33 total uploads have netted her 244,000 YouTube subscribers: a very respectable platform. But her Friday video was an outlier and with the absence of any real platform power (at the time), and questionable content, pulled in 48 million views. The obvious major factor here was just luck. She has done six music videos since, each receiving fewer views that the previous, with the latest one receiving 1.2 million views.

So if you do achieve some viral success and want to replicate it, take a hard look at the factors that lead to your virality. If it does look like luck was a major factor, then avoid a strategy that includes “winning the lottery twice.”

Even if you think your content is great, do not be seduced by outliers. The video from DollarShaveClub is hilarious and with a minimal platform would be enough to get to 100,000 views. But 10 million? That requires a substantial amount of luck and it’s likely they will not repeat that level of success even with better content. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, as 100k views can still provide an exceptional ROI.



Apr 2013


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Notes from a Thousand Portfolios



Part of my role as Creative Director at is to evaluate infographic designer candidates and make sure the best are members of our Marketplace. Mostly, this involves reviewing around 20 to 100 portfolios per week. After looking at thousands of portfolios this year, I have come up with somes tips for designers to stick to if they are looking to get the attention of a creative director.

Your own domain vs hosted portfoio sites

Having your own domain and website is an opportunity and a risk. It allows you to immediately show off any website design skills you may have and this should be required for website designers. It isn’t needed for illustrators and other designers, but can still be an opportunity to show off your creativity.

My process when reviewing hosted portfolios is pretty automatic and routine. Stumbling onto a really well done personal website can immediately peak my attention.

The risk, however, is that most personal websites I’ve seen are not well done.

Regardless of your abilities or client references, it often is hard to get past a dated, sloppy, or out-of-touch site design. Remember: if you are applying for an open position, you can assume many more are applying as well, and the reviewer or creative director often has seconds to make a gut decision.

If you can’t put together a well crafted personal site, just direct me to a hosted portfolio.

Not all hosted portfolio sites are the same. Some are a pleasure to work with, others I would count as a strike against the designer.

Showcasing your best work

The ideal portfolio, whether hosted or your own, will allow the viewer to be able to quickly get at your best work. This means big images and good categorization. Some thoughts on the most popular sites out there:

Behance: This is by far the most popular service, which is unfortunate becaus

e it requires a lot of clicking on my end. The categorization is rolled into the same hierarchy as individual projects, so portfolios are often a mix of collections and one-off projects, which is confusing. If you have a diverse set of skills, Behance will not show them off. Also, the preview icons are small, which necessitates a click to find out what’s going on. Behance also has all sorts of useless information on the page, which reduces the amount of your work you can get on the screen and increases my inefficiency.

Cargocollective: Another popular one and it can do some impressive formats. The problem is that people don’t use them. The typical Cargocollective portfolio I see is a righthand text list of projects or clients, usually in a small type and a smattering of 200×130 thumbnails. There is no real hierarchy, which results in a lot of wasted clicks. Cargocollective does strip out all the useless info that surrounds Behance portfolios, but it often leaves a hole for content, which few designers opt to fill with further design or useful info.

DeviantArt: I’m a big fan of DeviantArt and have been a member since 2003. The portfolio offering does a lot of things right. This is different than the gallery on your DeviantArt page: please don’t send me there, it’s a mess. The basic structure of is a list of categories, which take me into the projects or samples. The project images are nice and big, which is what I am looking for. The images roll through in slideshow format and I can usually get a good sense of your work in 10 clicks or less. My main gripe about daportfolio is they afford the designer little room for personality or personalization and the fixed-width/ non-responsive design is a bit dated.

Carbonmade: It’s generally a pleasure to view a Carbonmade portfolio, as they do much of what daportfolio does right — hierarchies and large images — but also allow the designer to express some of their style in the portfolio design itself. While some Carbonmade portfolios are put in a clickable slideshow, there is also an option for a scrolling presentation. I generally prefer to use the scroll wheel on my mouse rather than click to view content. I am certainly biased, but it’s worth noting that some sites are really geared to certain types of content. Often, video or interactives will be displayed poorly on the above sites. Likewise, infographics — which are often very tall — end up displayed awkwardly. If you have infographics in your portfolio, I suggest you get them on

Recipe for a successful portfolio page

There seem to be portfolio sites popping up all the time so if they can follow this basic recipe, you can have a winner.

Use categorization. If you have 20 illustrations, 10 site designs and 6 infographics, group them! Ditto, if you have 5 projects for Coca-Cola and 4 for Adobe. This helps me get an overview of what I am looking at and I can focus on the quality of the work rather than deciphering the context.

Go big or go home! I suspect most creative directors like myself have some pretty big screens. Do not be afraid to use big images, even in thumbnails, to show off your work. Large images stimulate more of my cerebral cortex and if the work is good, this will easily put you in the “memorable” category.

Don’t get too fancy. Please refrain from unnecessary fading or moving effects; those just slow me down. They may impress a wide-eyed potential client, but it’s just friction to me. Krop uses this technique and it’s irritating as hell. Not the frame of mind you want me in when looking at your work.

Do you need the network? Many portfolio sites are network and community oriented. Dribbble is a great example and Behance goes down this road too. A community of your peers can be a great asset to your progression and networking ability but it’s superfluous to someone who is evaluating your work. Please do not send me any Dribbble profiles! I do suggest designers maintain an active Dribbble, Forrst or Behance account for the community benefits but also have a separate profile that they link to when showing clients or employers.

Your portfolio is an expression of yourself, but always remember the intended audience. If you are actively seeking clients or a job, you should try to stand out but err on the side of efficiency and ease of use. Employers who have a stack of 100 portfolios to go through will thank you for it, maybe with a job!


Jan 2013

marketing, visually

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Market to normals, seed with techies?

You know whats getting really annoying?  When some new startup comes out of beta and you signup, only to find it’s fledgling community is full of other startup people.

It was annoying at Quora but if you get below the startup topsoil you can get some interesting questions answered.  But that is only IF you stick around long enough.  If you are in Silicon Valley and your startup solves Silicon Valley problems then by all means, launch to your target demo.  But If your demo is “normals” or middle America, why are you laying down a foundation of startups and techies?

Case in point is Kohort.  I signed up for beta many months ago and this was video pitch to potential users.


So from this video they are targeting moms, bikers, and aliens.  Basically everyone , but particularly moms and women.  Tagline, “Kohort, connect your community”.

So when I got the “we are live” email from them today I was excited.  There is a lot of work to be done around groups and location.  If there were a biker moms group near me, I’d want to be a part of it… if I was a biker mom.

So I signup and then start to explore the most active groups…

Gah!… more startups and venture capital!  Don’t I already have enough communities for this?  Where are the biker moms, the aliens, the normals?  Apparently there are 21 members in the Kohort Ambassarors group so either they haven’t really started yet or have tunnel vision.

Either way, Kohort is much less interesting to me now.  So please, future Startups, when you launch with a fledgling community, show me whats possible outside of Silicon Valley where 99.9% of the America lives.  And if you are in NYC, like Kohort is, there is really no excuse to serve up exclusively Venture Capital related groups to new users.  I’ll check back in with Kohort in 6 months to see if it has gone beyond the startup-circlejerk phase of user acquisition.

Sep 2012


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Infographics and Virality

I’ve written a lot about infographics, virality and how the two are entwined.  I thought I would share some of that here.

Back in July I gave a talk on how to make your infographics viral.  It mainly focused on some broad but essential practices but I also dived into the criticism of infographics and how to talk about them to critics.  I made a few attempts a humor as well.

The slides from the talk are here, but they surely won’t make sense without the video.

And if you are up for some reading I wrote a three parter on the key aspects of successful infographic.

The Story

What’s the angle, is there an angle, and how to find it if you don’t have one.  There is always an angle to find if you are willing to take some risks.

The Data

What is data, where to find it, and what to do with it.  Many infographics are chastised for the lack of data, which is fine in a certain context.  But an article can be data, stories are data, not just numbers.  Focus less on the raw data and more on what you can communicate with it.

The Design

The most immediate and visceral element of infographics.  Mind your audience and design just for them.  If the data are your words, the design is how you say it, and anyone whose communicated on the net knows how easy it is to lose the tone with just words.  Design is tone.

Finally, if you send outbound email to publishers and bloggers with infographics, you need to read this one as well.


Aug 2012
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Visitor Inertia

This is a topic I touched upon before, but I wanted to codify and expand upon it in a visual way.

The gist is, in order for a visitor to your site to achieve a goal, you have to give them enough inertia in the sales process.  It sounds simple enough, but many so-called best practices encourage the visitor to skip the sales process and go directly to the uncomfortable “ask”.  Below I will diagram many of these cases, but first, let’s get a handle on this visualization.

  1. Sales: This is the sales copy, images, or anything else on the page that you are using to persuade the visitor.
  2. Ask: This is ultimately what you are asking the visitor to do on this visit.  It might be entering their email, filling a form, liking a page, or buying something.
  3. Call to action: This is the “buy now” or “click here” button that takes you to the ask.  Sometimes it’s not needed when the ask is on the same page as the sales.
  4. Visitor: This is the visitor to your site.  They start at the top when they land on your site, and hopefully make their way over the ask hurdle.
  5. Level of persuasion: This is how persuasion your sales page actually is, not what you think it is.  A higher and steeper sales page might include some powerful social proof or other sales devices.
  6. Level of resistance:  The height here refers to how hard of an ask you have.  A simple email address would be a shallow ask, and entering in your credit card might be a steeper ask.
  7. Length of time: This is how long your sales and ask process takes.


The goal of any website with an ask, is to get that blue ball to build enough momentum to get up and over the ask.  It sounds obvious but many sites cut their sales process short buy putting the call to actions above the fold and encouraging the visitor to click the “buy down” or “download” button as soon as possible.  In many cases that would look like this. 

Clearly this is an ineffective model.  You haven’t given the visitor enough inertia to power through the ask.  You may have lots of great sales devices like testimonials and videos, but you are also encouraging the user to skip all that with a big and above-the-fold call to action.

In some cases, the call to action should be front and center.  This is often because you don’t need an internal sales process as visitors already have inertia from branding and external momentum.   Such is the case with the FireFox site.  Mozilla doesn’t have to sell the benefits of FireFox.  The visitor has likely already made up their mind to download it before they got there.  You will note in this chart, the ask is relatively small.  It’s just a one-click download.  You don’t need much of a sales process to get them to take that action.  Using the product is another process entirely though.


If you have a significant ask, like the visitor entering in their credit card number, you need to have a significant sales process and often keep the call to action away from the visitor until enough momentum is achieved.  It should look like this (right).  Sometimes the resistance level of the ask isn’t high, but the time requirement is.  This might be asking the visitor to take a survey.

Sure it’s easy to tick some boxes, but you still need enough sales inertia to get them through it.  In this example (left),
it is not clear if there is enough inertia at work.  You would either need to reduce the length of the survey, or increase the length or persuasiveness of the sales process.


Long sales

While lengthening the sales process can be effective to build inertia it can be taken too far.  This is often the case with the bullshit internet marketing schemes.  In this case, the ask is a significant “add to cart” of $700+.  So they try to stuff every possible sales technique into the process making 10+ minutes long if one were to actually read everything on the page.  This simply won’t work as reading the sales copy because and ask in and of itself.  A long and unpersuasive sales process will just cause visitors to leave or skip down to the ask ‘unsold’.

The more savvy internet marketers will use a long sales process followed by a low ask, just your email.  Then there is another sales process and another ask.  Finally a persuasive, often on-the-phone sales process, followed by a large ask or… all your money.

There is an excellent article from Verge about it here.  But scam artists aside, this process can be used for relative good.  If you are selling a $1,000 product B2B, it’s going to be near impossible to build a long and persuasive enough sales process to get them over that first ask on the first visit.  So you get their email first, then ask to show a demo, then a follow-up call.  Or sometimes the ask and call to action can have the same function.  By having a call to action that says “find out more”, the visitor is giving you permission to sell you a little bit more.  This can be done to lengthen the sales process while keeping the visitor engaged.

Beware the free trial

One mistake I often see is assuming visitors think the free trial is a low ask.  RJ Metrics has a short sales page and prominent call to actions.  This takes you to a sign up page where the plans start at $500, but “don’t worry, because it’s free for 30 days.”  Visitors, especially corporate decision makers can be quite savvy and know that engaging in a free trial can mean a significant commitment to a product.  The financial cost might be nil, but the time cost and more importantly the ego cost will be significant if the product doesn’t work out and I just wasted mine and my employees time.  So even if your trial is free, make sure you are building enough inertia to power through the perceived ask as well as the immediate one.

Just right

While it may be tempting to build a masterful sales process that rockets the user past the ask, you should really build no more than you need.  If your site is for an iphone app, then the ask is pretty simple, get to iTunes and download the app.  App users are skilled at downloading and testing apps very quickly.  The real sales process will be in the performance of the app, not in the sales page.

So any unnecessary length in the sales process will increase the chance of the visitor leaving. Even the most persuasive sales process is no match from the doorbell ringing or a co-working interrupting you.  So if the ask is short and sweet, keep the sell that way too.

So take a second look at your landing page.  Are you encourage the user to go straight to the ask?  Can you really provide enough inertia in 10 seconds?  Or should you hold off on that call to action?  Maybe you are overpowering the sales process, creating too much cognitive load for what be a simple and straight forward ask.  If you read my design audits, visitor inertia is one of my the main factors.  How many more conversions would you have if your visitors had the right amount of inertia?

Jun 2012

design, marketing

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All websites are strangers


Let’s say you’re walking down the street.  Maybe you know where you’re going, maybe you are just out for a nice stroll in the park.  All of a sudden a person appears and tries to grab your attention.  They may be disheveled or in wingtips.  They may quietly hold out their hand or try to stop you in your tracks.  Either way, they are a stranger, they want something from you, and your guard is up.

This stranger is your website.

Imagine a physical manifestation of your homepage walked up to you and asked for $10.  Would you be taking out your wallet in the first 15 seconds?  Likely not.

Yet there are a lot of “best practices” out there that encourage website designers to skip the relationship part and jump right into bed with the user.  But that’s just not how it works, unless you somehow feel attracted to this guy.


The long con

If your end goal is some sort of financial transaction then you should be engaged in the long con, not the short con.  Offline, this can take days or weeks, but in the compressed attention span of the internet, this should take minutes, not seconds.

Your landing page is the first minute.   The sacred “above the fold” portion of your site is the first 10 seconds.  What type of strangers ask for money within 10 seconds of meeting you?  What do they usually get?  Pocket change, if they are lucky and look pitiful enough.  Is your website or product a homeless panhandler that we should take pity on?  Then why is your call to action above the fold?

There are plenty of sites that will tell you to always place that big button high on the page, stating,

Web users spend 80% of their browsing time looking at information above the fold of the page (the part of the page that displays without scrolling down). That’s why it’s so important that you put your call to action above the fold, so that visitors see it the moment they land on your page.

Well obviously the most eyeballs will see your content above the fold, but I’ll let you in on a little secret about all those people who didn’t bother to scroll.  There were never your customers to begin with.  If you can’t even inspire the visitor to contract a few muscles in their index finger, do you really think they would have been a paying customer?

Back to the stranger on the street.  If they start talking to you, and you stop and perhaps subtlety nod your head, this is the equivalent of scrolling.  You may not really want to know more, but you have some time, so why not.  You have given the stranger permission to sell you just a little bit more.

This is why, if you are engaged in the long con (financial transaction), you should put your call to action at the end of your first page pitch, or even on page two.  Having a qualifying call to action at the bottom of page one like “Find out more” or “How do I get started” which then leads to a second page with another sell is a good practice.  The visitor has expressed their intent by clicking a link that says “How do I get started” and you then have an opportunity tailor your pitch to that frame of mind.

Beyond the form

If you put your signup call to action above the fold, or even in the header, it may indeed get more clicks.  But raw clicks should not be your goal.  You need them to travel all the way down the funnel to where they are typing in their credit card number and clicking submit.

You need the visitor to get beyond this point; the big stack of form fields.  This is the first point of resistance.  Clicking a “Start your free trial” button in the header takes a muscle twitch to accomplish, its low hanging fruit.  But with the form, now I have to think.  Now I am asked to give out my information and I have to evaluate whether I really want to do that or not.

If they clicked a button above the fold and are at a form, you can bet there will be a significant drop off in the funnel.  You may 50% of people to click the button and then 10% of them to fill out the form for a 5% total conversion.

If your call to action is after your pitch, below the fold, or on the next page, you may only get 10% of the button clickers but then 50% to fill the form.  It’s the same 5% conversion.

But here is the big difference.  Those that came in with the long con, who have read two pages of sales copy and have taken a few direct actions to get to and fill out that form, they have been sold.  They will perform better at every step in the funnel, from paying, to paying again, to telling their friends.

Those who clicked the signup button in the first 10 seconds, then filled out the form in the next 10 seconds, they have not been sold.  They will continue to drop off at every point in the funnel, taking up your support and sales resources along the way.

True customers will come back

So there are two strangers on the street with clipboards.  They want your information.   The first says “Hi, can you sign this petition to save Wally!” and shoves a clipboard in your face.  You don’t know who or what Wally is, but you sign the petition anyways so you can go about your business.  You leave a fake email address because you have no idea who this person is.  This stranger is your above the fold call to action and sign up.  A week later the Save Wally folks email everyone to show up at a rally and it’s no surprise that only five of the five hundred names attend.  This is the type of short con thinking that gets Wally killed, and your business too.

There is another stranger with a clip board.  They say, “Hi, I’m trying to save Wally the Walrus from being euthanized.  We are trying to spread awareness and this pamphlet will has more info on how you can help.  Can I give you one?”  The stranger has asked you to qualify yourself as a lead which you do by taking the pamphlet.  Inside the is sales copy tailored to you, the interested party.  The call to action is on second page of the pamphlet asking you to go to give your email to the volunteer you took the pamphlet from.  This may sound absurd, asking the visitor walk back to the volunteer to give their email.  But remember the little secret from before?  If they can’t be bothered to walk back to the volunteer, they certainly won’t be showing up at any rally.

Don’t funnel customers into pain points without inertia

Website designers and marketers today often use a commercial fishing approach to their homepage.  Blanketing it with call to actions to make sure no potential living thing can escape without seeing it.  Ironically, this approach may cause you to lose potential customers.  These visual dragnets funnel everyone quickly into a form or some other less-appealing state, like entering your credit card info.  Some people, if not most people, are just going to want to get out of the net as soon as possible, usually by hitting the back button or the little ‘X’ in the corner.  Even if the person was desperate for your product, if you haven’t sold them on it yet, they are going to want to swim away when you have backed them into a corner.  The dragnet may indeed be effective in scooping up some customers, but it will also collect a lot of garbage that you will have to process.  By building in more of a sales process you can give your hesitant visitors enough inertia to power through that form with no problems.

Your own stranger

So take a second look at your website.  What type of stranger is it?  Would you give your homepage $10 after 10 seconds?  Is it asking to commit to a long term relationship before you have even gotten to know one another?  Are your dragnets chasing away potential fish?

The bottom line is that if you have an ‘ask’ of any significance, you need to build a relationship with the visitor first.  Asking the using to jump through some short hoops in the sales process is not bad UX, it’s competent salesmanship.  Doing so will allow you to focus your energy into cultivating the valuable relationships you have and not trying to engage people who were never your customer to begin with.  Your most interested customers are going to sink to the bottom, below the fold.  That is where you should be waiting with an out stretched hand, stranger no more.



May 2012

design, marketing

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